2007 in review: Radio Sunpig

As in previous years (2006, 2005, 2004), Radio Sunpig is a collection of songs that represent the best of what I’ve been listening to over the last year. The songs weren’t necessarily released in 2007, but that’s when I first heard them. And as usual, its about two months late for a traditional end-of-year roundup. Oh well.

Radio Sunpig 2007: Coming And Going

  1. The Dynamites – Body Snatcher

    The Dynamites are a modern big band funk group, with a classic 60s vibe. “Body Snatcher” is the opening track of their album “Kaboom!”, and it really does sound like an explosion in a funk factory. Horns and drums all over the place.
  2. Shitdisco – I Know Kung Fu
    It takes a big song to follow on from “Body Snatcher”, but this does the trick: fierce drums, mean bassline, and a shouty chorus that makes you want to get up and jump around.
  3. The Pigeon Detectives – I’m Not Sorry
    Their later single Take Her Back got more airplay, but I prefer this one. The whole album seems to be about going out, shallow relationships, and dumping or getting dumped. It has too much energy to be depressing, though.
  4. The Go! Team – The Power Is On
    This is from their 2005 album Thunder, Lightning, Strike, which I found much more powerful than the 2007 follow-up, Proof Of Youth.
  5. Tragically Hip – In View
    From the album World Container, which totally rocks.
  6. Malcolm Middleton – Fight Like The Night
    I never got into Arab Strap; my listening habits weren’t indie enough when they were active. I first heard Malcolm Middleton solo on Steve Lamacq’s late night Radio 1 show, one evening in 2005 when I was driving back to Edinburgh from Perth. There were roadworks on the bridge, so I decided to take a detour through the back roads of Fife to cross at Kincardine instead. Should have brought a map…. I heard Loneliness Shines on my way through Dollar. It wasn’t until this year that I caught up with the whole album (Into The Woods), and his latest, A Brighter Beat. Fight Like The Night is from the latter, and it features the heavenly voice of Jenny Reeve.. It also has the most extraordinary intro that passes through five distinct phases of increasing intensity over a full minute. (If you get the album, try to get the extended version, with the bonus tracks “Black Marks” and “Cheer Down” on it.)
  7. The Dykeenies – Stitches
    Great new Scottish band. Stitches is a woefully overlooked guitar-driven anthem.
  8. Biffy Clyro – The Conversation Is…
    From Puzzle, one of my favourite albums of the year. This is one of the few songs from it they didn’t release as a single.
  9. The Arcade Fire – Keep The Car Running
    I didn’t like Neon Bible nearly as much as Funeral; in fact, this is the only song from it that did anything for me at all. But I would gladly buy the album again for just this one track.
  10. Eagles Of Death Metal – I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News)
    They’re not a comedy band, they just look that way sometimes. Ignore the “Death Metal” in the name – they are all about fun, ironic, sleazy garage rock. And yes, that’s Josh Homme on drums.
  11. Cajun Dance Party – Amylase
    New band from London whose members have only just finished school. Amylase is a perfect little pop record that had a tiny CD/vinyl-only limited release. Consequently, it got completely overlooked. But they’re building up a good following, and will have their first album out later this year.
  12. Blonde Redhead – Silently
    From the gorgeously moody album 23, this is a light, sweet interlude.
  13. The New Pornographers – Adventures In Solitude
    I found the New Pornographers (and through them, Neko Case) at the end of 2006. They released the album Challengers in 2007. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Twin Cinema, but if you like your pop intricate, varied, and melodic this is definitely one to look out for.
  14. Siobhan Donaghy – Halcyon Days
    This comes from her second album, Ghosts, to which I had been looking forward for a long time, especially after hearing the haunting title track way back in 2006. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the same bite as her solo debut. It’s full of pretty little pop songs, but only a few leave a lasting impression. This is one of them.
  15. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – It’s Hard To Kill A Bad Thing
    Peaceful, melancholy little instrumental from a smoky, understated alt-folk-country gem of an album: Ballad Of The Broken Seas.
  16. Lindsey Buckingham – Shut Us Down
    Under The Skin is Lindsey Buckingham’s first solo album since Out Of The Cradle, and it’s a very different beast, full of subdued, almost whispered vocals and intricate acoustic guitars.
  17. Ebony Bones – We Know All About U
    A dark bassline and funky hand-claps. I picked this up from Zane Lowe on Radio 1 at the beginning of December, and I’m still amazed that it never saw a proper single release.
  18. Serj Tankian – Empty Walls
    Start with a boom, end with a bang. Serj Tankian normally does vocals for System Of A Down. Elect The Dead is his first solo album, and might be best described as “piano metal”. He still cranks out the noise, though.

Update (2 Mar 2008): Here are links to videos for many (unfortunately not all) of the tracks on YouTube:

  1. (Not found)
  2. Shitdisco – I Know Kung Fu
  3. The Pigeon Detectives – I’m Not Sorry
  4. The Go! Team – The Power Is On
  5. The Tragically Hip – In View
  6. Malcolm Middleton – Fight Like The Night
  7. The Dykeenies – Stitches
  8. Biffy Clyro – The Conversation Is…
  9. The Arcade Fire – Keep The Car Running
  10. Eagles Of Death Metal – I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News)
  11. Cajun Dance Party – Amylase
  12. Blonde Redhead – Silently
  13. The New Pornographers – Adventures In Solitude
  14. (Not found)
  15. (Not found)
  16. Lindsey Buckingham – Shut Us Down
  17. Ebony Bones – We Know All About U
  18. Serj Tankian – Empty Walls

THE THREE

About four and a half years ago–on the plane to Boston for our 2003 Toad The Wet Sprocket Road Trip, to be precise–my brother Scott asked me a question:

“If you were going to be stranded on an island for the rest of your life, and you could only bring three songs with you, what would they be?”

The question is similar to the classic Desert Island Discs poser, but limited to three songs instead of eight “pieces of music”. Does this make the decision any more difficult? I’m not sure, because I had never considered the question before then, and in the FOUR AND A HALF YEARS since then, my brain has not been able to get past figuring out what those three songs would be. Seriously, I don’t think a month as gone by without me lining up a couple of tentative “THREE” playlists to see how they felt.

At work, I have a reputation for being a “completionist.” I have no idea why.

I have had so much trouble finding the (or at least, “a”) right answer because I live on a diet of new music. I have bought or downloaded 67 CDs so far this year (yay for eMusic). I don’t consider myself a “muso”, but I love variety, and I love falling in love with new sounds and new bands. Being limited to just three tracks for the rest of my life would be a kind of Hell. (Worse than being stuck with nothing but Dutch radio, even.)

So the three tracks have to be really spectacular — songs that I never grow tired of, no matter how often I hear them. Songs that consistently bring a smile to my face, get my blood moving, make me tap my feet and bash the air drums. Tracks with bite, texture, and enough complexity that I still find new things in them even after hundreds of listens. Songs that in thirty years’ time I won’t be cursing my younger self for selecting.

It’s this long-lasting criterion that has made it difficult for me to trust the staying power of recent songs. In fact, the first two tracks I have finally chosen are both from 1971: they’re older than me. I have never known a world without these two tracks in it, and they still sound great. Earlier this year I decided that they were definitely part of THE THREE.

The third track worries me because it’s from 2004 — only three years old. But I really have listened to it over and over again since it was released, and it never sounds anything less than awesome. After all this time dithering over the perfect track list, do I dare commit myself to a lifetime of it? I think I’m finally ready to say yes.

THE THREE

  1. Isaac Hayes – Theme From Shaft
  2. The Who – Won’t Get Fooled Again
  3. Ash – Orpheus

Do I really need to comment on numbers 1 and 2? They’re timeless classics. There is no better funk groove than Shaft, and there has never been a better rock scream than Roger Daltrey’s. But does Ash really stand up there with these greats? I think so.

The sheer energy and joy that pours out of every moment in Orpheus is energizing and infectious. Rick’s drumming is driving and furious, Tim’s yells of “go” and “yeah” launch the second half of the bridge like a starter’s pistol, and Charlotte’s cascading “ooh-ooh-aah-aah” backing vocals give me shivers every time. Crashing guitars, memorable melodic hooks, and possibly best of all for the Desert Island scenario: a sense of escape and freedom.

This is the song that would keep up my hopes of some day getting away.

HOW DID I MISS THIS

I knew I was out of the loop while we were away on holiday, but I didn’t realize I was so far out of the loop that I missed this:

“CUPERTINO, California–April 2, 2007–Apple® today announced that EMI Music’s entire digital catalog of music will be available for purchase DRM-free (without digital rights management) from the iTunes® Store (www.itunes.com) worldwide in May. DRM-free tracks from EMI will be offered at higher quality 256 kbps AAC encoding, resulting in audio quality indistinguishable from the original recording, for just $1.29 per song. In addition, iTunes customers will be able to easily upgrade their entire library of all previously purchased EMI content to the higher quality DRM-free versions for just 30 cents a song.”

It’s the logical follow-up to Steve Jobs’ open letter to the music industry from back in February, but I hadn’t expected it to happen quite so soon.

Er, yay!

Now if only Apple would get some video content into the Store for us folks outside the USA, everything would be peachy. See, I’ve just got myself a new 80GB iPod, and I’m suddenly alive to the idea of small, portable video. Which leads to thoughts of converting our DVD collection to H.264 and using iTunes on our Mac Mini as a full-fledged media library, rather than using VLC and distantDVD to play ripped VIDEO_TS folders. And suddenly the whole Apple TV thing makes sense, too. (If only they’d make the video content available, yada yada.)

Man, I feel so behind the times. This is what I get for not keeping up with BoingBoing every day.

(One prediction, though: given that us poor Windows users need Photoshop Elements or Adobe album in order to show their photos via Apple TV, but that we can sync our photos to an iPod with iTunes alone, I don’t think it will be long before iTunes gains some form of photo album capability.)

2006 in review: Music

Although I may have been slacking off on books and films in 2006, it was an excellent year for new music coming my way. I’ve already posted a selection of my favourite tracks of the year as Radio Sunpig, so now it’s time to talk about artists and albums. I’m not going do this in a “Top 10” format, because trying to come up with some kind of ranking made my brain hurt.

Instead I’m just going to take a meander through the year. Because I’m a bit anal about tagging my iTunes library with stuff like the date on which I ripped/downloaded songs, I can actually come up with a timeline of what I’ve been listening to over the year–working on the rough assumption that I spend most of my time listening to an album fairly soon after I get it.

(In case you’re wondering, the trick to this is to use the “Comments” field in the iTunes’ song info. This is a free text field, so you can write whatever you like there, but I prefer to stick to a fixed format: “sunpig:acquired=YYYYMMDD;sunpig:source=ACBDEF“. By making sure the date is always the first piece of information in the field, and written as YYYYMMDD, I can sort my library by the comments field, and have everything nicely ordered. I can also create a Smart Playlist that includes everything I got this year by making a selection based on comments that contain the string “sunpig:acquired=2006”.)

Smart playlist selection
Arcade Fire - Funeral

One of the first notable albums I came across this year was Funeral by Arcade Fire. My cousin Cameron recommended them to me, and Kev told me not to give up when it didn’t resonate with me straight away. It’s a slow burner, though, and I’m glad I stuck with it.

January was also the month for Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli), Eye To The Telescope by KT Tunstall, the fabulously energetic Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not by the Arctic Monkeys, and Hypnotize by System Of A Down. Hypnotize is the second part of their Mezmerize/Hypnotize diptych, but the weaker of the two, I feel. It rocks hard, but has fewer easy hooks than its predecessor. (And goodness knows I’m a sucker for easy hooks.)

Frou Frou - Details

Imogen Heap appeared on my radar in 2005 with the song “Hide And Seek” and the album Speak For Yourself. In January I bought tickets to see her on tour later in the year, and also stocked up on her back catalogue: I, Megaphone, her debut album, and Details under the guise of Frou Frou, which was a collaboration between her and producer Guy Sigsworth. I, Megaphone is quirky, spiky, and full of melancholy romanticism. With Details, the quirkiness remains, but the spikes are polished down to a perfect blend of electronic beats and Heap’s clear and airy voice.

Skipping ahead to the end of April (because it took me quite some time to digest everything I bought and downloaded in January), the Imogen Heap concert was a very stange affair. The venue was The Arches in Glasgow, and the crowd was raucous, rowdy, and unafraid to whoop and holler in a half-drunken West Coast way. Zoe Keating was the opening act, and we could hardly hear her fabulous cello work. When Imogen Heap came on, she looked tentative, genteel, and completely out of place. She nonetheless managed to shut the crowd up with a solo a capella rendition of “Just For Now”.

The rest of her performance was a mixture of the refined and the uncomfortable. She was at her best when she was alone with her laptop and keyboard, looping her voice and showing off the fact that she is a classically trained pianist. But for some of the livelier tracks from the album such as “Daylight Robbery”, she let a background recording take care of the guitar-laden music while she danced around the stage with just a microphone, trying hard to work the crowd. Unfortunately, she just looked awkward, gangly, and somewhat embarrassed at the lack of a full-size backing band. I’d like to go and see her again, but only at a more intimate venue, with a quieter and more attentive audience.

Zoe Keating - One Cello x 16: Natoma

I had never heard of Zoe Keating before seeing her name on the bill. Because I like having a sense of who I’m going to see, I bought her album One Cello x 16: Natoma beforehand, and loved it. It’s cello music, but not like you’ve heard before. She builds up the songs by recording and playing back multiple loops, so that it sounds like there’s a stage full of artists playing the song, when in fact it’s just one person. And she does this live. If you get the chance to go and see her in concert, take it.

It was around this time that I started listening to the stack of Tragically Hip albums that Woody had given me, and I think there was about a month where I listened to nothing else. They rock. In amongst awesome albums like In Violet Light and Day For Night were a couple of live performances, too. This is a band I must get to see.

Ghostface Killah - Fishscale

I bagged another large batch of tunes in late May, including Fishscale by Ghostface Killah, At War With The Mystics by the Flaming Lips, and How We Operate by Gomez. Fishscale is a fantastic example of modern gangsta rap: it’s full of guns, drugs, and misogyny, but also features clever storytelling, sly pastiche and odd moments of thoughtul nostalgia. The beats are fat, and the rhymes are slick.

At War With The Mystics is a worthy follow-up to Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and was the soundtrack to my trip to the @Media conference in London in June. Every time I listen to it, I get flashbacks to walking the streets from Victoria to the QEII conference centre. The Gomez album is full of great songs and great melodies that you find yourself humming along to by the time the second chorus rolls around.

July saw me listening to a lot of Muse. Black Holes And Revelations hits the sweet spot between ridiculously overblown prog rock and radio-friendly tunes. August brought The Misery Index: Notes From The Plague Years by Boysetsfire, which is also magnificently loud and energetic, but in a much more straightforward way.

In September new album Barenaked Ladies album was released: Barenaked Ladies Are Me. Selected download locations allowed you to grab the “deluxe” edition, which had 27 tracks on it rather than the 13 on the standard version. (I believe the extra tracks are being released on a follow-up album, Barenaked Ladies Are Men some time this year.) Although I liked some of the tracks on their previous effort Everything To Everyone, it was a weak album compared to their earlier work. BLAM, however, sees them back at full strength. The lyrics are everything I expect from the BNL– playful, insightful, sad, and political–while the melodies are strong, singable, and delightful. Now if only I could get to see them in concert again! I’m holding out a slim hope that they’ll do some a few more dates in Europe later in 2007.

The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema

Finally, in the week before I started to compile Radio Sunpig, I stumbled across the album Twin Cinemas by The New Pornographers. Now, taken on its own this would probably stand up as my favourite album for the year: it’s pure perfect pop. But this album was also my introduction to Neko Case, whom I am now declaring as my favourite artist of 2006.

Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

After falling in love with her voice on Twin Cinemas, I downloaded her 2002 album Blacklisted, followed by Fox Confessor Brings The Flood from 2006, and more recently Furnace Room Lullaby (from 2000). Now, I don’t listen to a lot of country/alt-country/folk music, but Neko Case could change all that. Her most recent work (Fox Confessor) is the least traditional of the three I’ve listened to, but Furnace Room Lullaby is unmistakably country. And I like it. Hell, I love it. It’s sweet, melancholy, and soul-wipingly emotional. I’m disappointed that I missed her UK tour in November, but at the time I’d never even heard of her. She’s doing some touring around the West Coast of the US and Canada in February, and just like with the BNL, I’m hoping that maybe she’ll add some dates I could make (like in March/April, when we’ll be in California).

So there you have it–my year in music. You’ve got alt-classical, hardcore rock, gangsta rap, lots of alt-pop-rock, and a healthy portion of alt-country to top it all off. At the risk of sounding smug, sometimes I love the way I love music. 2006 was a damn fine year for tunes.

2006 in review: Radio Sunpig

Keeping up my young but enthusiastic tradition of an annual compilation of what I’ve been listening to over the last year, I hereby present Radio Sunpig 2006. As usual, not all of the tracks were released this year, but 2006 was when I heard them first.

My main goal in putting together the compilation was to create a CD-sized mix that would sound great in a particular order, so the tracks here aren’t necessarily my favourite songs from any given album. There are even some artists that don’t feature at all because I couldn’t find the right space for them. I’ll try to make sure they’re represented when I do my favourite albums of the year in the next day or two. (Update: now available at 2006 in review: music.)

(Also, I’m not nearly as happy with the CD cover I made this year. What you see below is the third iteration, after I decided to fall back on some design elements that have worked out well enough on the site already.)

Radio Sunpig 2006: the cover

  1. Black Star – 8th Light (Astronomy)

    Black Star was a collaboration between Mos Def and Talib Kweli on the mic, and DJ Hi-Tek. Just like with Ash’s “Orpheus” last year, I knew this was going to be the first track of Radio Sunpig this year. The cool beats and smooth grooves set the tone for a compilation that is (relatively) laid back.
  2. Gomez – See The World
    A gorgeous song about seizing the day, and loving life. It never (well, rarely) fails to lift me out of a grumpy mood.
  3. The New Pornographers – These Are The Fables
    I tend to fall in love with the voice of one female vocalist each year, and this time round it’s Neko Case. This is perhaps not my favourite song of hers, but it’s a deliciously intriguing track nevertheless.
  4. Barenaked Ladies – Take It Back
    The Barenaked Ladies were back on top form this year with their album Barenaked Ladies Are Me. This track shows them blending politics with a sweet sing-along melody. Think of all the lives saved by plastic knives, indeed.
  5. L.E.O – Ya Had Me Goin’
    L.E.O. is a project by Bleu, and is a kind of tribute to the musical influences of Jeff Lynne and E.L.O. The rest of the album (Alpacas Orgling) is so-so, but this track is right up there with the best Jeff Lynne ever made.
  6. Belle And Sebastian – For The Price of a Cup Of Tea
    For me, this song will forever be associated with cleaning our bathroom. Don’t ask.
  7. Boysetsfire – Requiem
    This is Alex’s favourite song right now. He loves the superb rock drum opening. So do I. This is one of the more mainstream tracks from the album The Misery Index: Notes From The Plague Years, and although I love their more hard-core offerings, this is probably going to see more long-term play in the years to come.
  8. Jay-Z and Linkin Park – Encore/Numb
    Heard this for the first time on the soundtrack of Miami Vice, and loved it straight away. They’ve taken the best bits of both original tracks and mashed them together with a subtle and slightly menacing keyboard line.
  9. The White Stripes – As Ugly As I Seem
    Guitar. Bongos. Jack White’s vocals. Don’t understand what the song is about, but it’s great to listen to anyway.
  10. Frou Frou – Hear Me Out
    Frou Frou was a collaboration between Imogen Heap and producer Guy Sigsworth. This is a fine example of the sweet electronic pop they made together.
  11. Tragically Hip – Nautical Disaster
    Alan dosed me up on the Hip this year, but not soon enough for me to catch them on their UK tour. Bastard.
  12. Supergrass – Coffee In the Pot
    Hey!
  13. The Flaming Lips – The W.A.N.D
    I love it when the Flaming Lips go totally over the top with a track, but still manage to keep it all together: tumbling drum loops, burning guitars, vocal distortions and nonsensical mystic-rock lyrics. Awesome.
  14. Ghostface Killah (feat. Ne-Yo) – Back Like That
    I’m highly ambivalent about this track. One the one hand, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard this year, with stunningly vivid, evocative, and emotional lyrics. On the other hand, those lyrics are written from the perspective of Ghostface’s gangsta persona, and are profoundly violent and misogynistic. I have a hard time loving the song while disapproving of its actual content.
  15. Muse – Map Of The Problematique
    I like it when Muse rock hard. This is one of the overlooked tracks on their album Black Holes and Revelations, but one of my favourites.
  16. Fischerspooner – Get Confused
    I almost overlooked this one because it’s from one of the first albums I listened to this year. Still love it, though.
  17. The New Pornographers – Use It
    I came by the New Pornographers relatively late in the year–just a week before putting together this compilation, in fact–and the fact that this is the second song of theirs on here says volumes about how much I love their album Twin Cinemas. However, after further listening, there are several other tracks that I now prefer to this one. Still, it’s a terrific power-pop stomping tune, though, and I’m not disappointed at all with its place in the mix here.
  18. Barenaked Ladies – Another Spin
    I don’t normally like Kevin Hearn‘s vocals on BNL songs, but they are much stronger than normal here–to the point where this has become one of my favourite tracks of the album. (It’s only on the “deluxe” extended edition though.)

Gigs on a stick

USB stick (image by Fons Reijsbergen: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/468405)For some time now, it has been technically possible to offer concert-goers the option to buy a CD of a gig almost immediately after it has ended. I wrote about this back in 2003. The technology isn’t particularly widespread, at least partly due to patents and licensing issues surrounding it, but services like Instant Live (part of Live Nation, a spin-off of Clear Channel, who pioneered the technology) and DiscLive show that it’s definitely happening.

It looks like the next leap step for the technology is to sell the concert recording not on CDs, but on a USB stick. From the Barenaked Ladies blog:

These days people need their music fast. Rather than waiting a whole day to download the show from our website, you can now take part in our latest high-tech experiment (no, this doesn’t include lysergic acid or agent orange), by purchasing that evening’s show AT THE SHOW. Just go to the merch booth and ask to buy the USB version of tonight’s show, they’ll sell you a wristband, and at the end of the evening, you can come back to the table and pick up a fresh baked USB stick with that evening’s performance magically embedded in it. And we have t-shirts, too.

Very cool. It’s not quite a download straight onto your iPod, but it’s certainly moving in that direction.